What makes a great sub sandwich?


Can you spot the six things* wrong with this submarine sandwich?

The other day I had one of the best submarine sandwiches of my life at a local place. It was so good, I went back for the same thing two days later. The second sub (pictured above) was thoroughly mediocre. And it got me thinking about what goes into a great sub and why so many places fall short.

  1. A great sub has to have the right bread. An Italian bun that’s sturdy enough to hold up to the contents, yet not in any way crusty (unless it’s a bahn mi bun, which is its own category) or chewy. This bun was on the edge of that; as you can see the crust has just a little bit too much of a bake. But still acceptable.

  2. It has to have quality ingredients. This is where Subway, which actually does a pretty good job with its condiments and its buns, falls short by making everything out of turkey. Fatty salami or capicola is just as bad. The meat needs to have a good balance of lean and fat and enough spice that you get an interesting taste and not just a greasy mouthfeel. Ideally, the cheese is a nice sharp provolone. Note that the cheese is missing here.

  3. It has to have the right balance of meat, cheese, vegetables and bread. I’ve had some subs which were so generous with the meat that I had to take half of it off and throw it away or save for another sandwich. The meat is the base on which you need a good amount of lettuce, tomato and onion as well as other selected condiments (this one allegedly had olives and pickles, which I can’t see in the picture or remember from the tasting, and chopped cucumbers which I didn’t ask for) to provide moisture and lubrication… and of course provide the illusion you are eating something that is vaguely healthy. The cheese contributes a final sharp note with its tang and a firm texture as a counterpart to the other fragmented ingredients. My first sandwich from this place had that balance. The second was stingy with the insides and as I said, missing the cheese.

  4. It has to be well composed. Notice in my photo how the lettuce is coarsely shredded and all the condiments are spilling out of the bun? A good sub maker would never do that. Vencil Mares, a 90-year old smokehouse master I met this spring in Texas, told me he uses granulated vs. powdered garlic in his rub because “I want you to find some garlic in every bite”. That’s the genius of composition. Each bite should be a similar flavor experience to the one preceding it.

  5. It has to be inspected before you leave the deli counter. Did I mention this guy left off the cheese? How could he forget such a fundamental component? If it was half the bun he’d notice because the sandwich would fall apart but if it’s inside, out of sight out of mind. In general, ┬áit’s amazing how often food orders get messed up at deli counters. It may seem rude, but it’s a lot better to open the package right there and be sure it’s made to order than to get home and find out it’s wrong.

This sub was from the Meat House in Wilton, NY. I’d go back, but not for their subs.

* 1. Missing cheese. 2. Messy prep. 3. Missing condiments. 4. Unasked-for condiments. 5. Poor balance of bread/meat/veggies. 6. Poor value; sub price increased by $1 in the two days between my visits.
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